Mary and Joseph’s no good, terrible, wonderful year

A homily for Christmas Eve, 2020

At the turning of the year, as the days began to push back against the pushiness of night; as the light grew longer and the shadows shorter, the people were going about their business without a second thought, as the saying goes, as in the days before the Flood. There was no warning that everything was about to change, the world turn upside down, a new creation sweep across the earth as surely as in the days of Noah.

Back in those days, in which ignorance was bliss, an ordinary young couple was planning a wedding. But their plans were abruptly upended, not only by the government decree that mandated their registration and restricted their freedom of location, sending them scurrying for accommodation. That was only the backdrop to the real dilemma: that an angel of the Lord had appeared to each of them in turn to explain that instead of marrying and settling down as they had anticipated, instead, they had been chosen to bear and raise the Son of God, and all of their other dreams would have to take a back seat, for now, to the imperative of God’s love.

In an instant, everything was changed. By late spring, their plans were in tatters and their nerves raw from explaining to relatives the new situation. Mary, visiting her cousin in the country after Elizabeth emerged from her long quarantine, found herself staying for months, unable to leave. Just when she and Joseph could have used the time together.

Through late summer and into the autumn, quickly and quietly married to avoid the gossiping crowds, the new family found themselves almost adjusting, as though, for moments at a time, this were all quite normal and to be expected. After all, it had happened to Elizabeth, too.

But as the night pressed back again, eating into their days, the sleepless dreams returned. The political situation was becoming oppressive, and it became necessary to travel south, to Bethlehem, and search for shelter.

The centres of hospitality were full. They had to make a makeshift bedroom and delivery suite out of a cave, where the animals were stalled. It was nothing like Mary had imagined her marriage, her first childbirth, would be, this strange isolation with the ox and the ass. It was a singular situation, in a stressed-out time and place, and it was there and then that the Christ was born, God incarnate, Emmanuel: Jesus, whose name means our salvation.

It was a year like no other, but Jesus didn’t wait for a better time to come among us. He didn’t choose a safer place to be born – the palace of the king, or the living quarters of the chief priests, or some other realm altogether.

Instead he entered into the messiness of the stable, the precariousness of a politically explosive empire, the inexperience and uncertainty of young lives, the isolation of those without a footprint on the earth. He was born into a makeshift hospital when all of the others were full, and he made do with the midwives his mother and father could muster, drafted out of shepherds and angels and strangers.

He did not wait for a better time.

The world turns and we find ourselves once more at the manger. Last time the nights were this short, and the days just beginning to push back against their borders, we had no idea what the year would bring. It has upended our expectations, more than once. It has brought us grief, and loneliness, and creativity, and comfort. It has certainly not been without conflict, doubt, or fear. Yet still it brings us here, to the manger, once more.

Jesus didn’t wait for a better time to be born among us, because God knows we need him now. Jesus would not leave us hanging when we are out of room in the hospitals and out of patience with our politics and out of sorts with each other because we just need a hug.

God chose exactly the most inconvenient, unpromising, unstable time to be born among us, because that’s when we need Jesus the most.

Mary pondered this in her heart, as she contemplated the child lying in a manger, and all that was before them. There would be trials to come; life would never be the same as it was. And yet here, in the messiness and unexpected warmth of it all: here was Love laid out before her; the love of God, made manifest, born to save us all.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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